America is infamous for being the nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world, perpetually having over two million people behind bars at any given point in time. And among those 2,000,000, many studies done by groups such as the Georgia Innocence Project say that approximately 5% of those are wrongfully incarcerated.
While tackling the issues with the criminal justice system in America is undoubtedly a daunting task, some students at the College of William and Mary have taken the initiative to combat the inequalities and unfairness they see by founding the College of William and Mary’s Innocence Club.
Groups such as the Georgia Innocence Project say that approximately 1/20 criminal cases lead to prisoners being wrongfully incarcerated. One organization at the College is doing everything in their power to reduce that number to zero.
Despite the fact that the group has only recently been created, with meetings only starting in the Spring of 2021, the club is incredibly organized and uses its highly motivated members to help achieve their goals in whatever way they can. President and Founder of the club, Anna Birman ’23 explained that this is evident from the format of the meetings.
“Usually we start off with a topic in either wrongful conviction areas or criminal justice reform broadly,” Birman said. “We really like opening it up for discussion, getting everyone’s different perspectives and worldviews on it, to talk about it, but also come to the best solutions we possibly can.”
When it comes to the club’s members, many of them — such as Georgia Clark ’24, the club’s vice president of outreach — have always been passionate about the issues relating to criminal justice, but did not have an outlet for their passion prior to joining the organization.
“I first got interested in criminal justice reform in general in the summer of 2020 with research into the Black Lives Matter movement,” Clark said. “That really caught my attention, and then once I got to William and Mary I wanted to join a club that aligned with that and learned more. So I learned about the Innocence Club right when they started, which was lucky, and I started going to the meetings on Zoom and absolutely loved it.”
Many newer members of the club may have had some interest in these topics prior to their involvement but being exposed to the activism of the group opened their eyes to how pressing these issues were. This is especially true for member Jonathan Kimmel ’24, who, while only having joined this semester, is no less driven than anyone else in the club.
“I remember they had a table, and on the table was a big thing of paper, and it said, what would you miss most if you were wrongfully convicted, and I have not stopped thinking about that,” Kimmel said. “It’s not something that I’ve never thought about before, but it’s just such a strong question, it’s impossible to answer with one thing.”
While the day-to-day activities done by the club are very significant, the club truly shines during the special events it partakes in to further its main goal of helping those who are wrongfully incarcerated. A key example of this would be Wrongful Conviction Day, which the organization uses to draw attention to critical cases of people being wrongfully convicted.
“October 2nd is Wrongful Conviction Day, so it’s the one day a year where I feel like the general campus community pays attention to these issues, even if they’re not in our club, so we like to go as all out as we can for it,” Birman said. “Last year we had a tabling event, and we had a whole chalk campaign where members of the club signed up to write different quotes and statistics about wrongful convictions.”
When it comes to the special events done by the organization, the primary focus is raising awareness about these issues. And when it comes to raising awareness, no event is more impactful than the guest speaker events. The most notable and high-profile speaker brought in by the Innocence Club was Anthony Ray Hinton, who was wrongfully convicted in 1985 and spent 28 years on death row before being exonerated.
“I had many friends come up to me afterwards, and they said they were in tears at the event and that they had no idea that this ever happened,” Clark said. “He really opened a door for a lot of people that they did not know existed previously.”
The guest speakers, and especially the high-profile ones like Hinton, are effective in raising awareness and money for the club.
“We raised more money than we ever had before, so that was really exciting,” Birman said. “And I feel like just seeing people show up and care about the cause is really impactful for me, so I would consider that our biggest success.”
Even though the club has been around for a relatively short amount of time, they have managed to not just prove their significance to the student body through events and fundraisers, but to the university as well, proudly earning the College’s Values in Action Award in December 2021.
“Getting that was very memorable to me because it was like the school sees what we’re doing, they’re appreciating the hard work we’re putting in, and it felt really good to be acknowledged for that,” Birman said in reference to the Values in Action Award.
By showing its members the emotional and societal benefits of helping the wrongfully incarcerated, the club also is a community for its members interested in pursuing a law career. The Innocence Club’s mission provides them with an avenue to continue their activism after they graduate.
“I want to be a public defender, and I don’t know many other people that want to pursue a career in this field, and so one of our biggest goals is trying to show people that this is a career that you can pursue,” Clark said.